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What are some examples of how written communication has changed over time?

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Asher Wismer eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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A good example of changes in written communication is in the length or brevity of that communication. Before electricity brought technological advances, all written communication was done by hand writing.  Personal letters were constructed to include as much information as possible with small writing, cross writing and recross writing (writing on a page a second time at a 90 degree angle to the first lines, then a third time at a 45 degree angle). Until the mid-1800s, letters were charged twice to be carried: to the sender by page and to the recipient for delivery. After the mid-1800s, letter costs were by weight, not page. Nothing deterred long letters as letters preserved from important historical figures, such as George Washington, show.

Later, as electricity allowed the use of telegraphy, messages got shorter as they were charged by the word and each word had to be laboriously tapped out by hand; old telegraph messages are notoriously short and abbreviated. As the ground, sea, and then air mail services became faster and more efficient, letters started to become less important as telephones became common in private homes.

Finally, with the advent of email and cellular text messaging, written communication can be as long or as short as desired; emails have no limit on their length or content, but also require fewer skills in spelling and grammar than when writing by hand since they may be informal. Text messages have become the de facto mode of written communication for most of the world, with its own rules of grammar. Similarly, micro-content programs such as Twitter encourage the communication of complex ideas in extremely short messages.

"Letter Writing Before Penny Post." The British Postal Museum and Archive

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millermgmtsys | Student

One of the biggest paradigm shifts in written communication is the simple act of writing someone a letter and mailing it (with a postage stamp, not e-mail!). In all seriousness, sending an e-mail does not really replace the formal writing and mailing of letters. Secondly, another dying written art form is keeping a journal or diary. I'll explain both thoughts.

Back before any modern communication devices, starting with the telegraph, there wasn't any way to move a communique except by physical movement. Letter writing was the number 1 mode of long distance communication. Virtually everything we know of specific details about history is from letter writing. For example, there is much biographical info about George Washington, an obviously popular man. But, there's more in-depth writing about our 2nd prez, John Adams. The reason is he and his wife, Abigail, were prolific letter writers. In fact, Abigail was even more so than her husband. John spent many years away from home in the Continental Congress, America's co-ambassador to France, or as our 1st ambassador to the UK. He came home to spend 1789-1797 in Philly as our Vice-Prez. Abigail was home in Boston most of the time. Their letter writing carried their relationship. Also, Abigail was very smart and well educated for the times; she could not legally vote. Her letters didn't go on about sick cows or neighborhood gossip. She made shrewd & accurate political commentary, business ideas to make money. We learned all this from their letter writing.

We also have an equally in-depth knowledge of our 7th prez, John Quincy Adams from the letters he & his wife wrote. He was one of our less popular presidents because he had the political backing of the capital insiders, beating-out popular Andrew Jackson when they tied and Congress voted in secret ballots to choose JQA; also a beltway insider. Yet, more has been written about JQA due to family letter writing.

If someone has poor grammar and spelling skills,  use of texts & e-mail where "writing rules" don't exist, allows a poor grammarian or poor face-to-face communicator to hide behind e-mail. At best, a poor writer/communicator will never improve; at worst, their skills may erode further. A recent college survey of seniors raised with text & e-mail showed 70% could not write the cursive alphabet correctly and to “pass” they only had to get either the lower case or upper case for each letter, not both,.

As for diaries, they too are a dying out. I just read the edited & published Reagan Diaries. Only one other president kept a full diary throughout his presidency: James K. Polk.  Abe Lincoln, J.Q. Adams, Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt kept diaries off n' on, but nothing regular. It's fascinating to read President Reagan's thoughts, goals, things that went well and those that didn't. For the same reasons people don't write as many letters, it carries over to diaries.

My hope is educators realize there's an obligation to teach kids not just to read & write on a computer; but learning to be introspective, and to take time to express yourself meaningfully in writing is often times the only way someone can learn to grow in certain ways. Likewise, there is maturity & wisdom coming from letters you read from another person. And, yes, good letter writing and diary skills can be achieved on a computer if time is taken to write casually, for the joy of communication. Not just clipped text messages where the less words, the better.